Extraordinary Claims

in Deep Diveslast month

I think most of us are familiar with the phrase "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". It was popularized by astronomer Carl Sagan, and is now known as the "Sagan Standard". There is a risk associated with this standard however...


heliocentric_small.jpg
source: Wikimedia Commons

The risk lies in the subjective nature of the word "extraordinary"; what's extraordinary for some might be mundane to others. For flat Earthers, for example, the claim that the Earth is a globe that spins on its own axis and circles around the Sun, is an extraordinary claim, just as it had been for ages before Copernicus introduced the heliocentric model of the solar system, and Galileo Galilei presented supporting observations made using a telescope. Confirmation bias is strong in all of us and we tend to believe our own eyes; we see the Sun, Moon and stars revolve around us, and when we look into the distance we generally see no curve in Earth's surface. Add to that the belief in God and the Bible, which places Earth and humanity at the center of all things as God's special creation, and we have the ingredients for a confirmation bias so strong that in Galileo's days many of his colleagues refused to even look through his telescope.

In 2017 the scientific world community was taken by surprise by the discovery of an unidentified heavenly object by Robert Weryk using the Pan-STARRS telescope at Haleakalā Observatory, Hawaii, on 19 October 2017, 40 days after it passed its closest point to the Sun on 9 September. The object was named Oumuamua, which is Hawaiian for "scout", as it was identified to be the first object traveling through our solar system that came from outside our solar system; it was the first ever interstellar traveler detected. Oumuamua exhibited non‑gravitational acceleration, that is acceleration that can not be explained by gravitational forces alone, which is usually associated with comets; they are accelerated by their tail of gas caused by the heating of the ice by the Sun. Problem is that Oumuamua didn't have a comet's tail... So where did the non‑gravitational acceleration come from?

This is where a brand new extraordinary claim enters this story: on 26 October 2018, Avi Loeb submitted a paper exploring the possibility of Oumuamua being an artificial thin solar sail accelerated by solar radiation pressure in an effort to help explain the object's non-gravitational acceleration. He also wrote an article detailing six anomalous properties of Oumuamua that make it unusual, unlike any comets or asteroids seen before. This chain of events proves that confirmation bias is strong among scientists as well; most of Loeb's peers simply dismiss the possibility that Oumuamua is an artificial object made by intelligent life-forms outside our own solar system. This confirmation bias combined with the Sagan Standard simply prevents most astronomers from even considering this exciting possibility. It's not just 16th century astronomers and modern flat Earthers who refuse to step outside their comfort-zone, and in the below linked mighty interesting interview Avi Loeb discusses the close-mindedness he finds among his peers in the 21st century. If you're at all interested in this kind of stuff, as I am, I highly recommend watching the whole 2 hours and 43 minutes of it, as he discusses everything from consciousness, alien space junk and the threat of social media to dark matter, the theory of everything mortality and the meaning of life... Enjoy!


Avi Loeb: Aliens, Black Holes, and the Mystery of the Oumuamua | Lex Fridman Podcast #154


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